Somewhere during the (American) mid-20th century, the idea arose that ordinary people had well, rather specialized talents. If you could do sums better than anyone else, you had a "mathematical mind" and were told that insurance companies would readily grab you up to do actuarial tables. If you could make a splat better than anyone else's splat during finger painting, and were difficult to boot, you were "artistic", and well, we don't really want to deal with that. And then there was the "flair for languages".
Mostly, it was a negative talent. If you felt especially lazy doing your Spanish homework, (Spanish was considered the "easiest" language to know) you could always claim you had "no flair for languages" and limp along with a gentleman's C.
And then came the 1980's.
It was a never-ending source of wonder among my older relatives that I could a) pick up enough Russian to greet the sailors at the Bicentennial Tall Ships sailing, b) travelling through France, reading menus and ordering in French, and even bringing back French magazines and books to read, c) dealing with a week (or more!) in the Netherlands, when I spoke no Dutch to start with, d) liking and actually seeking out German - language records (and movies) and listening appreciatively, and e) even knowing enough Japanese to order and chat with the cook at my favorite yakitori diner in New York.
No, I don't have a "flair for languages". Even though I can add enough Latin to read at least one Renaisssance manuscript without a dictionary and cherish at least one song for the sounds and meaning of Ancient Greek. People ask me how I come to be "fluent" in Spanish. I'm not.
The real truth is, if you asked me to talk about anything other than normal pleasantries in Russian, I'd be tongue-tied. I can read French menus, some fashion magazines, and (some) comic books. I can also follow (some) movies and plays, such as Beauty and the Beast, with not much real dialogue: if you can deal with about a handful of nouns and verbs, the visuals say it all. Dutch is very close to English, and most Dutch in urban areas speak English. German is well, a great singing language: Peter Gabriel's "Shock the Monkey" is an altogether different song in English as it is in German, and German Expressionist film doesn't really need subtitles, though Peter Lorre doesn't sound like Peter Lorre in M. Japanese: can't talk about anything more than food, tea, art and sex, and again, it's mostly Japanese-words-in-English, not straight Japanese. Greek, Latin: there are any number of good British books on how to fake a public-school education with an University background. All you have to do is read them. And there's no excuse not to be able to follow "Dora, the Explorer".
And the fellow who runs the convenience store has done far more than me.Get the picture?
It's not the question whether I, personally, have some idiot-savant talent, but that the world has become, over the past twenty-five years, more global. My mother's and grandmother's America had far fewer immigrants, foreign travel, and foreign goods, while the rest of the world was just a little behind us in technology. In their world, a genial fellow who boasted of "six languages, all of them English" over cocktails, or a woman who nervously asked the waiter to translate the menu for her at lunch was simply displaying a) a "just folks" attitude, and/or b) an adorable helplessness -- even if you thought of the former as being just a little bit of a yokel and the latter, a bit naive, their lack of sophistication was more agreeable than not, simply a part of the American scene. On the other hand, anyone who knew more than one language tended to be either super-rich and/or well-travelled, pedantically over-educated, or foreign and/or unassimilated: not the type a New England Republican suburban housewife would like to deal with. Since the only honorable ways you could learn a language were a) to be stationed overseas, b) to have learned it in school, or c) as a dim collection of family expression, it's no surprise even the people they knew who did know other languages tended to downplay their ability. To actually be someone who, say, read French fashion magazines for their content would be as alien to them as ordering their husbands out of the garage while they got to the bottom of why the car was acting up: little wonder that any "foreign" expression used to be used with audible scare quotes, if it was pronounced correctly at all. (Honestly now: if you can do a Shrek impersonation, you can say "van Gogh" as something that doesn't rhyme with "Day-glo".)
Nowadays, there's just no excuse: just try to pronounce "croissants" as "kwa-SAN" or even worse "kroyssants", and you'll be gently corrected by the clerk at Dunkin' Donuts. Here in New England, Quebecois is gradually seeping down past the border, while Loisada is creeping north.